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EEOC seeks to set example with new mediation program

A program launched Tuesday to help Equal Employment Opportunity Commission employees resolve workplace conflicts should serve as a model for other federal agencies, EEOC officials said.

The program, called RESOLVE, makes mediators available to EEOC workers upon request at every stage of a case. Previously, commission employees could only ask for a mediator at any time if they had an equal employment opportunity-related grievance, according to Irene Hill, who runs the program and became the EEOC's first chief mediation officer on July 1. RESOLVE allows workers to request a mediator for a broader range of workplace disputes, such as conflicts over collective bargaining agreements.

Even though RESOLVE is only designed for EEOC employees, the program marks a "step in the right direction" toward making mediation more prevalent in federal sector discrimination cases, said agency spokesman David Grinberg. EEOC Chairwoman Cari Dominguez wants federal agencies that do not already have similar mediation programs to follow the commission's lead.

In a March letter to Dominguez, representatives of civil rights organizations, law firms and the American Federation of Government Employees asked the EEOC to promote mediation at all phases of the grievance process. The EEOC did not launch RESOLVE in direct response to the letter, Grinberg said.

The groups who signed the letter support efforts to encourage alternate dispute resolution, said Rawle King, who signed the letter on behalf of a regional council of Blacks in Government. But he noted the groups had made recommendations in six other areas and said Dominguez has not addressed them all.

The mediation effort is likely a "prelude" for other changes, Grinberg said. Hill said she hopes the program will help ease a backlog of cases within the commission. To participate, employees simply need to request a mediator. Most "basic workplace disputes" are eligible for alternative dispute resolution, she said, though cases involving criminal conduct or an inspector general investigation are not.

The EEOC has distributed brochures on the program and devoted a section of its Web site to promoting it. Hill has also asked managers at EEOC field offices to help spread the word.

For now, Hill and her assistant will appoint mediators from several outside organizations to work on EEOC cases. If the demand for mediators begins to outpace the number available through these organizations, the EEOC might consider hiring permanent staff mediators, Hill said.

"We've started small but our hope is to grow the program," she explained.

The National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216, part of AFGE, helped develop RESOLVE, but views the program cautiously. Gabrielle Martin, the council's president, has accused agency officials of failing to communicate with employees on a range of issues, fostering a general mistrust of management.

For this reason, some union members are reluctant to use programs touted by headquarters, Martin said. Others are worried that managers will not participate wholeheartedly in the mediation process.

"There's potential for promise there, but I don't think many of the bargaining units at this point are feeling like it's going to be a useful tool," Martin said. "There's no real excitement [about it]. Most people are skeptical."

Hill said she will continue to seek the union's input as the program unfolds.